The Musical Theatre Voice

Saturday 11 May 2013 

Emily reflects on the musical theatre voice in the mass music market

I was intrigued by the results of this poll in this week’s edition of The Stage newspaper:

Could a performer trained in musical theatre ever win the TV Talent show The Voice?

Nearly half, 48.1%, said No.

I’m shocked that so many answering this poll - especially given The Stage's readership of people working in the theatre industry – believe that someone whose training has been in Musical Theatre has a handicap. Does this type of vocal training somehow put singers at a disadvantage in a mainstream competition, against many other singers who may not have had any training at all? Or is it merely the public perception of the 'musical theatre voice' that leads the critics to question the musical star's ability to win? 

It’s clear that success in Musical Theatre hasn’t traditionally led to success in the pop world (although we can name many pop stars who’ve made the opposite move from the charts to the stage). On last year’s series of The Voice, millions of viewers watched Kerry Ellis, arguably the first lady of musical theatre in the UK, fail to catch the attention of the ‘coaches’. Her album Anthems released in 2010 didn't set the pop charts alight. Her disappointment might reflect that the musical theatre ‘voice’ isn’t one that naturally appeals to the mass pop market. Kerry admitted in the show’s interview footage that her decision to audition was ‘a risk’, but one that ‘could really change things’ for her. But as Tom Jones gave feedback that Kerry had obviously already made it with her successful career in musicals, he seemed to question that with such an impressive list of leading roles, there couldn’t be much Kerry be searching for with her singing. 

Kerry Ellis auditions for The Voice in 2012 - source: mirror.co.uk

Being a leading lady in the West End (and indeed Broadway!) would appear to be the pinnacle of a successful singing career, so what attracts singers already working on the stage to try for a TV show like The Voice? The resounding phrase used by the successful musical theatre singers auditioning for this year’s series has been a career as a recording artist.

Alex Buchanan, who has been appearing in Thriller Live, had the coaches battling for him, with Jessie J victoriously gaining him as one of her ‘artists’. However, according to the show’s BBC website, Alex has never had any training and sings Michael Jackson rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber.  So perhaps the musical theatre purists might argue he isn’t in the ‘trained in musical theatre’ category – perhaps Alex has a better chance as a result!

Another notable musical star making it to the ‘battle rounds’ this year is Liam Tamne, a recent Enjolras in Les Miserables, and alumni of both Wicked and Hairspray – who seems set on achieving his dream of becoming a recording artist. Tamne trained at Laine Theatre Arts - will this prevent him from being victorious in The VoiceWill.i.am look-alike Matt Henry is another musical theatre contender, with an impressive biog listing a number of roles and covers. Is there more than the call of a record contract that makes Liam and Matt want to hang up their jazz shoes for a place in the pop charts?

West End star Liam Tamne stands a chance of winning The Voice - source: bbc.co.uk

I can only speculate, but I’m sure attractions include: writing your own music; the creativity that replicating the same performance for up to 7 performances a week doesn’t fulfill; a very different kind of limelight; money; the next notch up on the fame level; swopping the dusty back stages and shared dressing rooms of the West End for fancy greenrooms and riders might be on the list. Perhaps it’s just a curiosity of making a different kind of music that attract auditionees – after all, many West End performers grow up with theatre schools and ‘Am Dram’ – pop doesn’t have the breadth of ‘training’, so it’s easy to see why so many musical singers stick to what they know.

Not every voice is a ‘recording voice’ capable of world fame, but I just can’t see a good reason why a singer originally trained in musical theatre can’t put their hand to a successful career as a ‘recording artist’. Musical singers are often the most flexible type - straddling different style for every show, and using strong vocal technique to get them through several shows a week. Whether a singer who has trained in musical theatre will win The Voice or not stands to be seen, but I hope that there is some sucess for these singers, who are brave pioneers, flying the flag for the talent in the musical theatre world. 

Emily 

We’d love to hear your thoughts - can a musical theatre singer win The Voice? Leave us a comment below or tweet us @starlingarts

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